REVIEW: “No Placeholder for You My Love” by Nick Wolven

Tuesday , 20, September 2016 6 Comments

“…you like snuggling?”

The pulps take a real beating in the press. You know the litany of slurs that are deployed every time old school science fiction and fantasy comes up. Even people that appreciate some of the classics feel compelled to denounce aspects of them just as they would tend to distance themselves from controversial political figures they’re in danger of being associated with.

You know, I could almost stomach this sort of thing if the people doing it created stuff that was an order of magnitude better than the old pulp stories. But let’s compare. Here’s one that’s from Asimov’s Science Fiction which was recently reprinted in Clarkesworld: “No Placeholder for You My Love.”

Now, you’d think that people would not be titling stories with the phrase “my love” in them except for satirical purposes, but it gets better. Or worse, really. Check out this bit of dialogue:

They drove out of town onto rural dirt roads, where moonlight splashed across the land. In a plank roadhouse, a dance party was underway, a fiddle keening over stamping feet. Parked in the dirt lot, soaked in yellow light, they conducted the usual conversation.

“Now, me?” Byron said. “Let me tell you about myself. I’m a middle-aged computer programmer who enjoys snuggling, whiskey, and the study of artificial environments. I have a deathly aversion to crowds, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m nowhere near as handsome as this in real life, and I can assure you, I’ve been at this game a very long time.”

His face dimpled as he delivered his spiel, not quite smiling. Claire laughed at his directness. Byron thumped a short drumroll on the wheel.

“And you?”

“Oh, me?” Claire said. “Me? I’m no one.”

“That’s an interesting theory.”

“What I mean is, I’m no one anyone should care about. I don’t even care about me.”

Okay, I’m trying to think of older works that are this cringeworthy. Just off the top of my head, only Michael Moorcock and Philip José Farmer have scenes that come close. It was bad writing for them for much the same reason that this female protagonist fails to be either interesting or endearing: the writer thought it would be hip and or cute or something to have a “hero” that is pretty well devoid of positive, likeable qualities. Even with such a glaring problem, these two authors still managed to deliver epic spells, awesome battles, and mind-blowing universe sized shifts in the nature of reality.

But this story…? You don’t really get anything close. You have these not-quite characters, in a not-quite world, having not-quite hook-ups. Something not quite resembling true love threatens to break out at the end, but it doesn’t quite happen. I guess I can see someone suggesting that that lousy pick-up line there was supposed to be horrible because these are ersatz beings in an ersatz world. (Some kind of artsy thing?) Unfortunately, the text flatly contradicts this:

“Oh, you know. If they knew how wonderfully independent we’ve become. How clever and shy. How suave in the art of romance. How proficient at avoiding any kind of commitment.”

Eh, that passage above is many things, but the people in it are anything but suave. And this line… it doesn’t even make sense! I mean… the thing that makes romance so interesting is that there is something at stake. The drama hinges just as much on the doors that are closed forever as it does on the one through which the binding and consummation is established.

Really, there are very few pulp authors that failed to understand that. In addition to paying off a romance, they could simultaneously develop and pay off a conflict between likable characters with a range of virtues against unlikable characters established as being some flavor of contemptible. In contrast, the todays “literary” approach is attempting to push fiction’s state of the art forward by repudiating the very elements storytelling. It’s hasn’t worked. It won’t work. It can’t work. Doing that sort of thing might help you get your foot in the door at a magazine like Asimov’s. But next to just about anything pulled from the canon, it simply won’t stand up. Indeed, it will barely succeed in registering as actual science fiction.

For just one example of how a grandmaster handles the sort of thing this story is toying with, see C. L. Moore’s “The Bright Illusion”. And I can already hear the objection: it’s not fair to compare a bad story from today to a great story from the past. That’s apples to oranges, they’ll say. Ninety percent of everything is crap, they’ll say. But I say that’s all beside the point. Because if you take for granted the sort of things that are currently promulgated by the run of the mill editors and literary seminars, you simply can’t get there from here.

That’s why the pulp masters are unsurpassed to this day. And that’s why the pulp revolution is happening.

Snuggling gag courtesy of Noah Doyle.

6 Comments
  • Jon M says:

    For all that the pulps get dinged for being mindless consumer works, it’s stories like these that are full of empty calories.

    Wolven’s writing shows flashes of technical brilliance. Some of his descriptions possess a lyrical quality that really hammers home the relentless tedium of the empty lifestyle the characters lead. I’ll grant you the characters are vapid and irritating, but this work had a lot of potential. It felt like the early portions of Clarke’s “City and the Stars”.

    Of course, that just makes reading it all the more frustrating. This work – and you’ll note I didn’t call it a story – is an excellent example of the sterility of putting style over substance. He’s so enamored of his convey crushing nihilism that he forgets to include any story in his story.

    What results is nothing more than a sterile exercise in writing gimmickry for the sake of gimmickry. You consume it, and when done you walk away with nothing. No insight. No satisfaction. Nothing.

    *This* story is brain candy.

  • Alex says:

    This is an interesting contrast to John Brunner’s programmers were cool cats who flawlessly wrote tens of thousands of ‘words’ of code, and gorgeous dames would be all “oh, code guru, you and your code are sexy!”, but the programmers would say “sorry, babe, not now, I’m trying to visualize transcendent code; i got a phasegate to open.”

    And by interesting, I mean sad.

  • Funny. I started reading this story on Clarkesworld this morning. Couldn’t finish it. I love short stories but the current crop of online and print magazines are awful. I’m thinking of dropping my Asimov and Analog esubs if this upcoming month is as bad as the last. I need good stuff!

  • […] is an awesome collection of stories that I think put to shame the sort of thing you’ll find in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Check ’em […]

  • Daddy Warpig says:

    It’s trash. Nearly all “literary” F&SF is trash.

    Trying to make F&SF literary trashed the genre.

  • […] REVIEW: “No Placeholder for You My Love” by Nick Wolven […]

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